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February 25, 2000

Socking It To the ‘70s

Set Gitell

A new book describes a particularly dark time for the Jewish people. In Munich, Germany, anti-Semites murder 12 Jewish innocents. In Berlin, a group of thugs plots the eradication of all aspects of Jewish life in the city. In a violent attack elsewhere in the world, gun-toting villains separate Jews from non-Jews. A Jewish state is embattled and almost defeated at war. Meanwhile, Jews who exist outside of harm’s way are tossing off tradition for newfangled ideas and pagan gods.

The epoch being described is not the Nazi Era—the 1930s and 1940s. Nor is it the time of Hellenism and the Seleucid Greeks. Nor is it the period of the Philistines. The dark time for Jewish life being described is the 1970s. It is a period that David Frum, a contributing editor of The Weekly Standard, puts into sharp relief in "How We Got Here: The 70’s—The Decade That Brought You Modern Life (For Better or Worse)" (Basic Books). The focus of Mr. Frum’s book is not on Jews, but on America. He argues that the key period that changed America was not the 1960s—as is commonly accepted—but the 1970s, with its sexual and social revolutions taking place on a massive scale. However, all the trends Mr. Frum concentrates on permeated and transformed Jewish life, particularly in America. And the response of American Jews to the acts of terrorism mentioned above helped usher in a new era that, finally, vanquished communism.

Students of Jewish demography note that the real erosion of the community began just as America became an open, looser nation. The inevitable consequence of a country with less prejudice against Jews was the disappearance of social barriers that prevented non-Jews from marrying Jews. This happened in the 1970s. For those who actually thought of "spiritual" matters, the departure from Judaism took place even more rapidly. Consider the quote Mr. Frum gives us from a 1960s radical, Jerry Rubin: "In five years, from 1971 to 1975, I directly experienced EST, Gestalt therapy, bioenergetics, rolfing, massage, jogging, health foods, tai chi, Esalen, hypnotism, modern dance, meditation, Silva Mind Control, Arica, acupuncture, sex therapy, Reichian therapy, and More House." But no Torah.

Mr. Rubin’s experimentation was representative of many American Jews during the period. Writes Mr. Frum: "And when, in the fullness of time, those disaffected young people ceased to be quite so young, they did not return to the faith of their youth. They took up instead a vague, post-biblical spirituality."

While Americans—Jews and non-Jews alike—devolved into the study of EST, Mr. Frum recounts, the enemies of Jews and freedom committing heinous acts with near impunity—America lacking the requisite morale will to face up to the challenge. The Baader-Meinhoff gang in Germany plotted to blow up the Jewish headquarters in Berlin. Palestinian terrorists murdered 11 members of the Israeli Olympic team. A joint German-Arab team high-jacked an Air France plane to Uganda. After Israeli commandos rescued the hostages in the daring Entebbe mission—perhaps the moral high-point of the decade—the former Nazi who headed the United Nations at the time, Kurt Waldheim, condemned Israel for violating Uganda’s sovereignty. Those pinnacles of moral courage, the editorial writers of France’s Le Monde, wrote in response to the Baader-Meinhoff gang, "Only a society that is itself monstrous can produce monsters." Of the primary sponsors of Baader-Meinhoff and the other terrorist groups—the Soviet Union—Mr. Frum quotes Jimmy Carter as saying that the "Soviets perhaps have some political reasons for spelling out or exaggerating the disagreements."

Into this moral breach stepped the Committee on the Present Danger—Paul Nitze, Irving Kristol, Eugene Rostow and Norman Podhoretz—to help return a tougher spirit to the American polity. The efforts of the Jewish intellectuals—along with grassroots Jewish activists on the frontlines of demographic battlegrounds, such as those of Canarsie in Brooklyn—repelled the outrages. Finally, America elected Ronald Reagan, and Iran released its American hostages.

There is far more to Mr. Frum’s book than the Jewish story. He provides a compelling account of the gender and social transitions of the 1970s. In his sweeping treatment of a decade, his book is like Frederick Lewis Allen’s "Only Yesterday: An Informal History of the 1920’s." But Mr. Frum’s points about the demise of formal institutions and organized religion resonate when put in the context of the moribund Jewish organizational world. And his description of gelatinous American policy is loosely reminiscent of what Israel is experiencing today. The good news in Mr. Frum’s account is that even in those days, individuals rose to the challenge of the day—Margaret Thatcher in England; President Reagan, Lane Kirkland and Senator Henry "Scoop" Jackson in America, Pope John Paul II in the Vatican, Anatoly Scharansky in Russia. Perhaps we can hope for the same at other times when moral courage weakens.

© 2000 Forward

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